Saturday, October 09, 2004

Wanna "Think Big" in KC? Just Extort the Taxpayers...

The Kansas City politicians and media are once again ready to shove another initiative down the taxpayers’ throats. Taxpayers, including those who could care less about sports, are going to pay and pay as local sports owners demand more and more tax subsidies, rather than showing gratitude to the people that driving ticket sales, advertising revenues, and merchandising.

Thirty years ago, New York City taxpayers were told that renovating Yankee Stadium would only cost $26 million. As is the case with government spending, the project would end up costing more than $100 million. Two decades later, Yankee Stadium renovations weren't good enough for owner George Steinbrenner, who threatened to leave unless the city conned the taxpayers into building him a new ballpark (a classic threat to bully uninformed sports fans). In a move that further helps to eliminate the myth that Republicans work to decrease the size of government, then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that it would be in the city's interest to launch a $1 billion project for a downtown Yankees stadium.

More recently in Oakland, Raiders owner Al Davis won a $34.2 million verdict against the city stadium authority for failing to deliver on its promise of sold-out games. Down the road in San Diego, the Chargers want a new stadium eight years after the city renovated the current one. These are the welfare queens that President Reagan should have been singling out.
Like their east and West Coast counterparts, the facilities of the Royals and Chiefs are no longer the cash cows that poor Lamar Hunt and David Glass want. Their political allies behind this latest campaign are offering the usual justifications for supporting these massive, welfare projects: city prestige, business development, and new jobs. Make no mistake, publicly funded stadiums come down to money; money that goes to directly to the pockets of wealthy sports owners.

The "pay us off or leave" threats you will hear coming from the Truman Sports Complex until Election Day will help give the appearance that these sports facilities constitute some sort of 21st century social need. The fact that professional athletics were once an private enterprise during the first half of the 20th century is beyond grasp of the local sports reporter. Sports facilities were being successfully built and operated through private investments as late as the 1980’s. In 1987, Joe Robbe, owner of the Miami Dolphins, constructed his own new stadium.

If one were to rely solely on the words of talk radio in Kansas City, you would be convinced that subsidies are the only way to create and maintain sports facilities for professional teams. The city’s print publications have done an equally effective job of spreading the message for socialist driven sports stadiums. The voice of reason (opposition) rarely if ever rears its head within this debate.

In February, the Kansas City Star was happy to relay the sentiments of Kansas City Councilman John Fairfield, who urged us to fund a downtown arena ASAP by way of a taxpayer initiative. With all his talk of revitalizing downtown, Fairfield's emotional pleas fail to mention any kind of economic research that could back his claims. Fairfield points to funding a downtown arena as a historical catalyst for downtown revitalization. Hasn't our KC Council men looked down I - 70? What has a downtown sports dome done for St. Louis? Well, for starters the St. Louis Jones Dome where the Rams play is costing taxpayers $720 million over 30 years. What has it done for downtown St. Louis development: NOTHING! The St. Louis Centre mall next door is a failure, and the city of St. Louis is trying to sell the rest of the convention center in a leaseback deal to try to make enough money to balance the city's budget for just one year...WHAT A DEAL!

Like St. Louis, tax subsidized facilities in downtown KC will produce little in return for taxpayers. The reason is simple: these facilities don't operate year round - only for the seasons the teams play in them.

KC Star Columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah took up the cause by reminding us that we should be setting aside little Timmy’s college fund for a downtown arena, not to mention being in desperate need of another BI-state tax (“BI-State II: The Reckoning!). Yael must have forgotten what a great success the first bi-state tax has yielded. Those screams you hear from mid-town come from Union Station, which is already (surprise!) wanting more tax money! Who would’ve thought that the magic of Science City couldn’t support itself?

And finally, Johnson County Sun Chairman Steve Rose lectured Johnson County-ites on the importance of bi-state II, and fattening the wallets of David “Put ‘em on the” Glass, and Lamar “Chicken” Hunt.

Buried in a small corner of a recent edition of the KC Star Sports section was the most recent study of publicly funded sports facilities. Once again, researchers at the University of Dayton concluded what other academics and independent researchers have found for the past decade: public subsidies for sports stadiums are unnecessary.

The study found that teams building stadiums on public funds between 1989 and 2001 would probably recover all or nearly all of the cost of construction if the facilties were built with private money.

The economic rationale to subsidize these sports facilities always ends up equating new stadiums with new jobs for local residents. This notion has been shown through studies to be incorrect. Regardless, the media continues to echo this argument. In reality, sports have little effect on regional economies. The facilities fail to attract significant new tourist dollars or new industries. The vast majority of spending comes from local residents, which merely diverts spending from other leisure activities. As economists have consistently shown, economic growth will be minimal. Most stadium employees work only part-time and at very low wages.

Five years ago, then Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, told the owners of the city's two major sports franchises that taxpayers should not be spending money on new stadiums. Ventura was criticized for asking wealthy, private businessman to start acting like capitalists and not beggars in need of large government handouts.

American media devotes so much attention to sports because so many people are fans, even if they do not actually attend games or buy sports-related merchandise. As these media practitioners happily spread the message of fear through Kansas City of “becoming another Omaha”, their comfy jobs in the local sports media become that much more secure.

Truth is, neither the media nor the political elite are much interested in the overall economic impact on the city. What is at stake is political gain, ratings and advertising rates, and the franchise owners’ desire to subsidize their businesses. The public never benefits.

Refusing to pay these subsidies may result in the loss of a city's professional sports franchises. But if the only way to prevent a team from moving means shoveling corporate welfare into the hands of billionaires, then I say good riddance. These people make extortion into an art form. It’s not worth it to be held hostage by them.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Using Sports to Avoid a Career of Political, Economic, or Social Change...

I recently encountered a ticket salesman for a local sports team that told me of attending a "sports marketing academy" this year. The "camp", as he described it, ran for two weeks and more or less functioned as a job placement service.

The cost?


Is this the going rate of elaboratedly named temp. agencies? Of course not.

For just $3500, he was now selling tickets for a minor league sports team. He indicated that even these seemingly ordinary sales jobs were in high demand. He was just one of the many men at this sports marketing seminar that were hoping to land any kind of job in the sports entertainment industry.

I am in the same age bracket of this generation of males that are retreating to a career of sinecures in the sports industry to avoid being challenged with positions that require political, economic, or social responsibility. Jobs in the sports industry provide these recent college graduates with a safe sinecure that allows them to put to use their lifelong exposure to sports and mass media messages.

It's sad, but obvious that my generation of fellow males have never had their ideas and beliefs challenged. They were never asked to argue for any political or social philosophy; they've never had to take a stance on a economic platform. Sports is the only arena they're comfortable debating in. They are unable to supply criticism to theories and campaigns that focus on anything but bats, balls, pucks, or pigskins.

As if the modern internship experience wasn't humiliating enough, now entertainment corporations are making these expensive seminars part of the pre-requisite for getting your foot in the door.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Jason Whitlock: "Keep Salaries of Public Officials Locked Away'!"

Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock did what every good 'sports journalist' ought to be doing: defending KU Athletic Director Lou Perkins in his fight to keep his salary information out of the hands of the Lawrence press.

On his daily, sports talk radio show, Whitlock described the efforts of the Lawrence Journal World newspaper to make Perkins disclose his salary information as "dangerous."

The real danger is when media practitioners such as Whitlock fail to recognize that the press must always be willing and able to press governments suits for information, even when it means burning a bridge or two.

Thankfully, Whitlock took the cowardly route which keeps him in good graces with Perkins and the Athletics Department at KU.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

City still Reeling from Rodman's No-Show

(Originally UN-published February 1st, 2004)

"We communicated to our fans and to the press that we had a commitment from Dennis Rodman and the Long Beach Jam that he was going to be here. He elected not to come. We don't control Dennis Rodman."
-Jim Clark, owner of the Kansas City Knights, after a sellout crowd was duped by the Knights' marketing effort (Kansas City Star).

4,800 Kansas Citians ventured into the freezing cold on Friday, January 30th to fill the bleachers of Hale Arena. Their mission was simple: catch Dennis Rodman in what will likely be his farewell tour as a professional basketball player. The gates were jam packed. People were squashed up against one another trying to get inside the gymnasium and, simultaneously, escape the icy chills outside. The Kansas City Knights organization and their ticket takers were obviously unprepared and unfamiliar with such crowds. They could not get people inside quick enough. The fervor in the lobby outside the arena only added to the build-up. People had dusted off their old Rodman jerseys and were wearing them as if the Chicago Bulls were still in the middle of their championship days that ended almost six years ago.

On Thursday, a Knights representative informed me via telephone that tickets for the game were selling like hotcakes, and a sellout was definitely on their radar. The man confirmed to me that: “Dennis Rodman will be here, they (the Long Beach Jam) just arrived in town today.” At the time I didn’t notice that he made no mention, let alone confirmation, of the “Worm” taking the court. The Knights had been advertising the game all week as if it was the second coming. This wasn’t being billed as the Long Beach Jam versus the Kansas City Knights, this was Kansas City’s chance to see a 42-year-old man make one last, desperate attempt to climb back into a league that he had played himself out of four years ago. Such an event transcends sports entertainment.

The Kansas City Star appeared to seal the deal: an article previewing the game that frequently alluded to the fact that Rodman was going to be at the game. Between the week long advertising campaign, the Kansas City Star article, and the word of the Knights representative the day before, everything seemed to be running smoothly for Rodman’s arrival. There was an unusual buzz in the parking lots for a sub zero night in January. When I got into the building it was as if entering the place to be on this night in town. It was a party atmosphere in the lobby of Hale Arena. People were crowding the ticket window still trying to get last minute seats. The place was filled with kids and pre-high school teenagers that had convinced their parents to drag them out to a relatively unappealing section of town, in the dead of winter, and pay for tickets, parking, and concessions.

This was the only chance most of these kids were ever going to have to see a Dennis Rodman-like superstar come to town. I thought back to when the Chicago Bulls traveled to Lawrence in 1997, and a measly preseason game against the Seattle Supersonics filled Allen Field house to the rafters like it was the NBA Finals. People in Kansas City love basketball, even if they have to commute to Lawrence (Can we please stop calling the Jayhawks a “collegiate” team? ).

Everything seemed to be falling into place. If Rodman was not going to be on hand the Knights would have surely used one of their numerous opportunities to inform the fans. The deception continued up to the ticket gate. Fans made their way into the seating area and found their assigned seat. Then, what seemed like the voice of God beckoned over the public address: “Dennis Rodman will not be here…….” That’s all the fans needed. Everything else that followed seemed irrelevant.

The word of God it wasn’t. It was Knights owner Jim Clark on the PA system announcing that Rodman wasn’t in town. The fans initially stayed quiet. Maybe they weren’t as disgusted, or maybe they were still just too numb still from the frigid walk from the parking lot. Either way, the news did not draw a loud, emotional reaction. The majority of the fans remained quite, polite, and tried to enjoy the game. The lack of Dennis Rodman meant the crowd could now do one of two things: turn back toward the ice and wind, or watch a group of basketball players that most had never heard of. Naturally, the crowd, still reeling from the shock of being duped, was in no mood to turn around and venture back into the freezing temperatures and darkness of the ‘bottoms.”

What followed was a peculiar mix of sloppy basketball and entertainment-related activities that left much to be desired. Even during the game, rap music blared over the speakers. Each song contained a clever use of editing techniques to supposedly make the songs “clean” for the consumption of children in the audience. A Rodman look alike contest was held that basically encouraged children to reach back into the country’s rich tradition of performers sporting black face to entertain the predominately all-white crowd. There were great consolation prizes at the door, such as a Rodman poster handed out to us by the always classy female representatives from Hooters. These were also the same lovely ladies placing “I love Hooters” stickers on everyone, people of all ages, as they entered the arena. Oh, but the Rodman-less fun didn’t stop there. The game itself was also a barrel of laughs.

Thank goodness for the depressing weather outside, which was enough to keep the near capacity crowd inside Hale for the duration of the game. I hope the Knights aren’t naïve enough to believe that people were staying to watch a display of basketball greatness that included three air balled free throws by Knights center Paul Shirley. The “exciting ABA action” (as Mr. Clark would say) didn’t stop there as Knights forward Derek Grimm resorted to tackling a Long Beach player to prevent a lay-up. For further comedic relief, fans were treated to the sight of two Knights players colliding in mid-air as they attempted to both snag the ball in mid air to complete an alley-oop. Funny, but I was lead to believe the circus wasn’t coming to town for another couple week. Maybe the Monster truck rally being held simultaneously next door at Kemper Arena was somehow rubbing off on the players.

The first place Long Beach Jam won the game 113-105, as the Knights dropped their third straight game. But make no mistake about it: the Knights players only lost the game, while the Knights organization may have lost many potential, future customers.

What were the Knights thinking? The approach they chose ensured them of cashing in on the “Rodmania” currently engulfing the ABA. I realize that the Knights would have lost out on some much needed revenue by being up front with the public. However, I can’t help but feel the organization has slightly discredited itself in the long run. That is, if they intend to be around for the long haul. Judging by the total stoppage of play in league last year, the ABA does not appear to be in the position to build long term report within the community. In the highly competitive sports entertainment industry, they’re living day-to-day looking for the next quick fix to save the league, which was floundering before it even got off the ground in 2000. This only translates into more Rodman-esque debacles as they search for the next available dollar to stay afloat in their cut-throat industry. The reality is that live entertainment cannot afford such sacrifices to cultivate a relationship within the community.

The Kansas City Star did a yeoman’s job on Saturday morning of relaying the official (Knight’s) version of what happened Friday night, especially the peachy atmosphere that continued in Hale Arena sans Rodman. David Boyce, the author of the article, seemed all too willing to let the Knights have a free pass on this one. Maybe Mr. Boyce was genuinely under the impression that kids dragged their parents out to Hale Arena to watch Paul Shirley’s parade of air balls from the free throw stripe.

What the Knights must do now is accept the consequences of their gaff and expect a backlash that manifests itself in the form of microscopic crowds filling the oversized storage garage that is known as Hale Arena for the remainder of the season. The night could go a long way in sealing the Knights coffin in Kansas City. The free exposure to their product they gained was the absolute worst way in which this could have occurred. Any talking PR head can tell you this.

The Knights had countless opportunities and means to prepare the fans for this scenario. It was well known in ABA circles that Rodman was nursing injuries and had been missing games for the better part of two weeks prior to his no show in Kansas City. Those kids must feel like they were just “punk’ed” at the expense of Rodman, the Knights Organization, and the ABA itself. The only question now is whether or not the whole episode was being taped by Ashton Kutcher to be shown at a later date on MTV. I truly hope the Knights can rebound from this blunder, yet they seem to truly underestimate what transpired. There are far too many entertainment choices at are disposal to keep giving the Knights second chances.

With a new season on the horizon, we'll see if they've learned their lesson from this debacle.